By Lindsay Palazuelos
This blog post is the first in a series on Partners In Health’s supported project in Guatemala—Equipo Técnico de Educación en Salud Comunitaria (ETESC, Technical Team for Education in Community Health)
Despite late afternoon heat and the buzz of mosquitoes, the twenty teens in Agua Escondida’s small high school were paying close attention. Mandy Lemus, a facilitator for the health education program led by PIH’s supported project, ETESC, walked between the desks. “Why,” she asked, “do people abuse alcohol and drugs?” The students slowly opened up, sharing ideas and experiences from their lives. One young man at the back of the class offered: “to forget their suffering”. Such candid discussions are rare in much of the world, including this western corner of Guatemala. However, to help young people navigate their choices, they are essential.
Students and teachers have jumped at the chance to receive practical information about adolescence, STIs, drug abuse, and HIV. ETESC’s program is now in place at over 20 schools, teaching a series of six modules to students ages 11 and up, with many more institutions asking to participate. The course is also offered to groups of teachers, many of who have not received health education themselves.
Mandy’s co-facilitator is Elda Yosmeri Morales Hernandez, who led the students in several confidence-building exercises. At ages 22 and 19 respectively, these young women are especially well positioned to relate to students as peers and understand their perspectives and concerns. As Mandy explained “Many people feel uncomfortable talking about these topics, which is why we put great emphasis on myths and taboos, to break through the fear, to break the ice and be able to talk openly.”
Both women see the program increasing not only student confidence, but their own. “At first I was nervous to lead the class, but now I feel sure of myself,” Yosmeri stated proudly.
Perhaps the most challenging lesson includes practicing applying a condom (on a banana). Students are typically mortified that they will seem like “an expert” whenever they ultimately use a condom with a partner. “My response” says Mandy, “is that knowing is different than doing. We’re teaching them now because they need to be prepared whenever the appropriate moment does arrive, socially, emotionally and physically.”
ETESC hopes to adapt and expand the program to include more hard-to-reach teens who are not in school. Students have given the program high marks for relevance and teaching them something new. At the end of the class in Agua Escondida, those feelings were echoed by a thirteen year old in the first row, “I thank you for coming, because this is really important to know, and its information I can use.”
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